Japan reaches a turning point in advancement of nuclear power

JApan's nuclear power program has reached critical mass. Nuclear power is Japan's only viable alternative to costly imported oil, insists Yuji Osada, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.

But, over the length and breadth of the country, violent protest movements are emerging against the siting of power plants.

The main public fear is the safety of atomic energy, exacerbated by a national phobia that has developed from the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Three Mile Island accident didn't help, and it has been compounded by a series of small radiation leakage incidents forcing several Japanese nuclear plants to close down temporarily over the past few months.

Kashiwazaki, on the Japan Sea coast near Niigata, is the current focus of the antinuclear movement.

Tokyo Electric eventually wants to build seven reactors there producing a total of 8 million kilowatts of power.

Despite strident local protests, it began construction of the first 1,100 megawatt reactor in August 1979.

To do so, it had to remove a "solidarity hut" built by the protestors on the site, a move which is still being contested through the courts.

Public hearings began in the town last month on the proposed second and third reactors, but hundreds of riot police had to be called out to stop demonstrators invading the meeting site.

And in a dawn raid, some 1,000 riot police evicted several hundred protesters from two more huts freshly built on the construction site.

On the opposite coast, at Kashima, some 6,000 protesters were held at bay by riot police when a public hearing was held in late January on a proposed extension to the local power plant.

Some 20 local residents were admitted to state their views, but the demonstrators claimed all had been deliberately chosen because they favored the project.

On the island of Shikoku the town of Kubokawa recently become the first test of Japanese public opinion on the nuclear issue. The mayor if Kubokawa, Suzumu Fujito, was forced into a special election by strong opposition to some remarks he made favoring construction of a 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plant nearby. He was narrowly defeated.

Premier Zenko Suzuki, however, says this won't affect the government's determination to press ahead with nuclear power. hiromi Hirasawa, president of Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, says he still believes most Japanese support nuclear power -- on which depends Japan's ability to survive third and fourth oil crises. He called for government and industry to find ways to settle the siting issue.

These are some of the behind Japan's inability to meet its nuclear power targets, even though these have been scaled down to quite modest proportions over the past few years.

Last november, the government set a goal of 53,000 to 55,000 megawatts of nuclear power generation by the end of this decade.

But the Ministry of International Trade and Industry says that, at most, Japan in 1990 will have only 50 power stations with a total generation capacity of some 45,000 megawatts.

At present, there are 21 plants in operation with total capacity of 14,900 megawatts, and another 14 (capacity 12,900 megawatts) are under construction.

Mr. Osada of the Atomic Energy Commission says 1980 was a most difficult year because of public opposition.

As a result of the slowdown, France has shoved Japan out of its traditional second place behind the United States as a user of nuclear energy.

But, argues Mr. Osaka, given Japan's position as a resource-deficient country , "Nuclear energy is the only way out in this era of tight and expensive energy supplies."

Coal is being pushed as the short-term substitute for oil. But it too is becoming extremely expensive and is also considered undesirable for the environment.

Kumao Kaneko, director of the Foreign Ministry's nuclear division, asks rhetorically: "What alternative is there?

"There is talk of solar power, wind power, etc. . . . But they can't run Japan's giant industries. We have to go nuclear if we are going to maintain our economic strength.

"Unfortunately, it is an emotional issue and people don't necessarily react logically, conditioned as they are by fear of nuclear war and the publicity given to radioactive fallout from nuclear tests."

Mr. Kaneko is currently engaged in trying to overcome opposition from various Pacific island groups to the planned dumping of low level radioactive waste from Japanese power stations in some 4,000 meters of water north of the Marianas.

The Foreign Ministry has produced two color brochures with data proving the safety of the operation -- which involves cementing the waste into steel drums -- under internationally accepted safeguards.

The government has also sent out four missions on tours of the Pacific basin, without breaking down the resistance. As a result, no decision has been made on the timing of the dumping operation.

Tbeen helped by recent reports that serious levels of cobalt-60 have been discovered in seabed mud and shellfish in the vicinity of two power stations on the Pacific coast where leakage accidents have occured in the past.

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